The deadlock over parades is unlikely to be broken this summer. There
have already been disputes especially over the 'Tour of the North' and
the Springfield Road. Further confrontation over Drumcree [near
Portadown in Mid-Ulster], the Ormeau Road [South Belfast] and other
contentious routes is certain to follow.
Drumcree in particular may bring an upsurge of violence. Some of the
anti agreement unionists see it as an opportunity to attack Trimble and
deal a blow at the peace deal. The Parades Commission [government body
appointed to 'rule' on contentious parades] recommendation of the
possibility of jam tomorrow in return for good behaviour today is not
likely to be accepted by the Portadown Orangemen. Last year the
Orangemen marched their forces away from Drumcree Hill in response to
similar promises made privately by Tony Blair. They will hesitate before
accepting any government hints or gestures that might end with the wool
being pulled over their eyes yet again.
Fragmentation of the loyalist paramilitaries and the beginnings of a
realignment of the LVF [Loyalist Volunteer Force - a hardline split from
the Ulster Volunteer Force] with a section of the UDA [Ulster Defence
Association - historically the largest Loyalist paramilitary
organisation] could mean increased paramilitary involvement in and
around Drumcree and raises the likelihood of sectarian attacks against
Catholics. Attempts to spread the protests, blocking roads, barricading
areas, organising parades in other areas, are bound to overspill into
attacks on catholics.
If the Orangemen do not bite at the Parades Commission proposal and
disperse their forces, the State will probably repeat the massive
security operation of the past two years to enforce their ban. It would
take a massive mobilisation and the threat of violence spreading beyond
Portadown and getting out of control to compel the government to back
down and force the parade down the Garvaghy Road. The problem for the
Orangemen is that violence from them or from the paramilitaries on the
wings of the protest could split the Orange Order and cut across the
mass support they need to get their way.
It is extremely doubtful that the Portadown Orangemen could achieve and
sustain a sufficient mobilisation to force the government to reverse the
Parades Commission decision. The polarisation over Drumcree is as
intense as before and there are many in the anti agreement camp who want
to take this issue to the limit but there is not at the moment a general
mood for confrontation. Just as it is in the interests of the anti-
agreement forces to whip this issue up so Trimble and the pro agreement
unionists will try to put a brake on any protests that might spill out
It is most likely that the military line erected by the State at
Drumcree will hold and that the parade will not be allowed onto the
Garvaghy Road this summer. The other disputed parades will probably be
similarly dealt with. Agreement between parade organisers and residents
over any of the routes that have been most hotly disputed in recent
years is unlikely. The decisions of the Parades Commission will probably
be enforced with whoever feels aggrieved unable to apply enough pressure
to have them reversed.
While this is the most likely scenario the possibility that the
sectarian violence could achieve a momentum of its own cannot be
entirely discounted. In this circumstance we need to be prepared to
raise the call for action by working class people through trade union
and community organisations to demand a halt to sectarian attacks.
It is more probable that, after a period of upheaval over Drumcree, this
year's marching season may pass by without unleashing a general
confrontation but with nothing resolved. The fact that the State can
draw a line in the sand and hold it by military means is not a solution.
The whole issue - and especially the Drumcree march - will remain like
an unexploded bomb, neither ignited nor defused, but as unstable and
potentially devastating as ever.
In fact if anything the issue is now further away from resolution than
ever. During the first major confrontations over parades in 1996 and 97
the whole community was taken to the edge of a sectarian abyss. Having
had a glimpse of where things were heading, working class people, both
Catholic and Protestant, drew back. The calls of hardliners on both
sides for confrontation no matter what the consequences became a little
more isolated and a certain mood for compromise developed. In a number
of areas discussions between residents and local Orangemen and
Apprentice Boys did take place. A few local agreements were arrived at.
This year the same pressure for compromise has not developed. In part
this is because there is not the same expectation of sectarian violence,
not the same tension and therefore not the same pressure from the wider
working class community on hardliners on both sides to hold back. But is
also because of wider developments in the peace process and within
The Good Friday Agreement is a deal at the top between sectarian
parties. Its premise is that the sectarian division within society is
permanent and the best that we can hope for is that the sectarian
politicians thrown up by this division, and who strive day and daily to
maintain it, can hold hands across the divide.
Throughout the peace process the role of the main parties has been to
maintain and whip up sectarianism in order to marshal their own
supporters on the key issues they have taken into the negotiations. The
Troubles in the form of the paramilitary and State violence of the past
decades may have largely ended but the sectarian conflict has continued,
albeit in a different form.
The conflict has very largely turned into a drawn out war of attrition
over territory. An expanding Catholic population is inevitably spilling
over into new areas. Streets and estates that were once overwhelmingly
Protestant are becoming mixed, in many cases en route to them becoming
Flags, murals and other symbols either of nationalism or of
unionism/loyalism have become potent weapons in this conflict. The
mushrooming of UVF/UDA/UFF flags in Protestant working class areas and
on the main routes through these areas is all about territorial control.
In part it is about the bitter conflict between the UDA-LVF and the UVF
over which paramilitary controls these areas. But it is also about
marking out Protestant territory and discouraging Catholics from moving
in. It is an extension of the more direct intimidation of petrol
bombings and threats that are also taking place.
A similar mapping out of territory has also been taking place on the
Catholic/nationalist side, although recently it has not matched the
intensity which the UDA UVF conflict has brought in Protestant areas.
Still many areas are decked out with tricolours and other nationalist
symbols. This, no less than the flying of union jacks, is a declaration
that these are now the territory of one side, in this case of
nationalists. It too is a form of intimidation, a sleight to those
Protestants who still live in these areas and a discouragement to any
who might otherwise choose to do so.
The conflict over parades is part of the wider conflict and has more to
do with territory than with the 'rights' stressed by either side. If
sectarianism is not overcome the fact of an expanding catholic
population will mean that the conflict over territory will continue.
Parade routes that are uncontentious today will be opposed tomorrow.
There will be new flashponts, new Drumcrees, unless a resolution of the
issue is found and unless steps are taken to overcome the sectarian
division and to unite working class communities in the common struggle
for a better society.
The Protestant perception is increasingly that theirs is a community now
on the defensive. The bigoted elements who argue for no negotiations and
no compromise over parades get a certain echo because of the feeling
that concessions given today will be followed by demands for more
concessions tomorrow. While the Orange Order are split over whether to
recognise the Parades Commission and whether to directly negotiate with
residents they are not split over the right to march.